A1 A1
South Heartland hits red zone on virus risk dial
  • Updated

The South Heartland Health District has hit the red zone for the first time on a dial assessing risks associated with further spread of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19.

In a news release Wednesday evening, the district health department announced the South Heartland risk dial reading has increased to 3.0 from 2.7 a week earlier.

A reading of 3.0 is on the line dividing the “elevated” (orange) and “severe” zones on the risk dial. Other zones on the dial include “low” (green) and “moderate” (yellow).

Risk dial readings, which are updated each Wednesday for the South Heartland district, range from zero to 4.0 and are based on various criteria related to coronavirus infection levels and health care system capacity.

In the news release, Michele Bever, health department executive director, said key measures used to determine the level of risk have worsened. These measures include intensive care bed availability in the district, ventilator availability, number of COVID-19 patients requiring hospital care, and the average daily new cases reported to the health department.

In addition, the district’s test positivity rate is back above 15% after one week of dipping below that mark, which indicates widespread community transmission of the novel coronavirus.

Infection with the virus causes the disease known as COVID-19, which may produce no symptoms in some individuals but severe illness and even death for others, depending in part on factors such as old age and underlying health problems.

Bever said South Heartland’s move from the orange zone to the red zone on the risk dial doesn’t automatically result in changes to school plans around the health district, which includes Adams, Webster, Clay and Nuckolls counties.

“The school districts each have their own phased COVID plans,” she said. “They use the risk dial as one tool in making their decisions about how best to provide instruction and activities, keeping in mind the safety of students and staff. We believe that it is best for the health of the students and best for the overall health of the community to keep students in school, and we are working closely with the schools to maintain that objective as long as we can.”

As of Wednesday, 14 school districts in the four-county health district were recording student and staff absences related to COVID-19. A combined total of 260 students and staff were absent from pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade schools. Of that number, 33 students and six staff members were in isolation after testing positive for the virus.

“The schools continue to do a good job assuring COVID prevention practices are in place to protect their staff and the students,” Bever said. “We continue to encourage school families and community members to follow their example.”

As for health care settings, she said, nine long-term care facilities in the South Heartland district have had staff members, residents, or both test positive for COVID-19 in the past two weeks. Meanwhile, 21 patients were being cared for in South Heartland hospitals due to COVID-19 on Wednesday, including seven in critical care and five on ventilators.

Hospitals in the South Heartland district are Mary Lanning Healthcare in Hastings, Brodstone Memorial Hospital in Superior and Webster County Community Hospital in Red Cloud.

Bever noted that with twice-weekly testing of staff at long-term care facilities now required by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the amount of testing in the district has increased dramatically.

The testing shows that spread of the virus in the community at large is occurring at a much higher rate than spread within the care facilities.

“Forty-eight percent of the tests last week are attributed to long-term care testing, but only 0.01% of the LTCF test results were positive,” Bever said.

By comparison, 29% of the test results from the community were positive.

“We will begin reporting out separately the LTCF (long-term care facility) positivity and community positivity for a more accurate picture,” Bever said.

South Heartland’s average number of daily new cases for the 14 days ending Nov. 7 was 73.6 per 100,000.

“If we had low community spread, we would expect an average of eight or fewer new cases per day per 100,000,” Bever said. “Already, in the first four days of this week, we have received 196 positive lab reports, averaging 49 cases per day, which equates to an average of 108 new cases per day per 100,000.”

Guidance for severe COVID-19 spread includes staying at home when symptomatic, maintaining 6 feet of distance from people you don’t live with, and masking up to reduce risk of close contact exposures.

“Our hospitals, locally and across Nebraska, are feeling the strain. If hospitals are caring for patients with severe symptoms of COVID-19, they have less capacity to care for any of us or our loved ones when we have other critical needs, like strokes and heart attacks,” Bever said. “We can all help reduce this burden by avoiding the three Cs: avoid crowded places, avoid close contact and avoid confined spaces.

“We are urging you to help protect our hospitals, keep our schools open, and keep our local workforce healthy so our businesses may thrive and our loved ones — young and old — and their caregivers remain healthy. It is up to all of us to take care of our communities.”

As of Wednesday, two health districts bordering South Heartland — Central to the north and east (Hall, Hamilton and Merrick counties) and Two Rivers to the west (Kearney, Franklin, Harlan, Buffalo, Phelps, Dawson and Gosper counties) already were in the red zone on their risk dials. The current reading for the Central Health District is 3.8 out of 4.0.

The Public Health Solutions health district, which includes Fillmore, Thayer, Jefferson, Saline and Gage counties to the east of the Hastings area, remained in the orange zone.

Statewide, 70 new deaths related to COVID-19 have been recorded in the last seven days, bringing Nebraska’s running death toll to 730. Daily hospitalizations over the last seven days increased by 187, to a total of 860, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported Wednesday.

The daily average of new positive cases for the last seven days is 1,953 — up from 1,240 a week ago, 852 the prior week, and 838 the week before that.

For more information on South Heartland virus statistics and risk dial guidance, visit www.southheartlandhealth.org.

Ceremony honors veterans
  • Updated

Service members of all eras were honored and remembered for sacrificing to protect America’s freedoms during a Veterans Day ceremony Wednesday at the Hastings City Auditorium.

Hosted by the Adams County Veterans Service Office, the annual event unites veterans of all branches of the armed services to recall the past and be thanked by a grateful community.

Master of ceremonies Duane Norris noted the motivation and commitment shown by veterans as they stood in harm’s way and took great personal risk in defense of the nation.

“Our veterans didn’t get to swear they would protect their family and friends from harm,” he said. “The oath they took was to defend the Constitution of the United States of America, to defend the ideas behind it.”

The selfless act of being willing to serve something greater than oneself has been crucial to the protection of the nation, and Norris thanked veterans for being willing to do that.

Jeff O’Donnell was the keynote speaker for the service. O’Donnell is a retired Hastings businessman and author of “Starkweather: A Story of Mass Murder on the Great Plains” and nine other books.

He provided a brief history of the holiday.

Veterans Day originally was known as Armistice Day and is observed as a federal holiday in the United States annually on Nov. 11 at 11 a.m. to honor those who have served in the U.S. armed forces.

The date was selected because major hostilities of World War I were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when the armistice with Germany went into effect. Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day in 1954.

O’Donnell said the holiday is distinct from Memorial Day, which honors those who died while in military service.

lbeahm / Laura Beahm/Tribune  

Jeff O’Donnell gives the keynote speech during a Veterans Day service Wednesday at the Hastings City Auditorium.

“Veterans Day pays tribute to all veterans who have served, but especially to give thanks to those living among us who served honorably during war or peacetime,” he said.

He noted that veterans have spouses, children and other family members, but were willing to sacrifice personal time with them to defend freedom because they feel freedom is worth protecting.

“We can count on our armed services to protect us and our way of live from domestic threats to those outside our country,” he said. “We will never tolerate threats to our freedom from the bullies of the world.”

The Rev. Harold King, a retired Lutheran minister, provided the invocation and benediction.

The Hastings High School Trumpet Ensemble performed the National Anthem at the beginning of the service. The group also performed a medley of patriotic music that combined music from each branch of service. Veterans in attendance were encouraged to stand when the song related to their service branch played.

Four local veterans — Allen Sedlak, Robert McGovern, Milburn Erickson and Harold Johnson — received Quilts of Valor in recognition of their faithful service to the nation.

Honorary wreaths were provided by several local organizations including: American Legion Auxiliary Unit No. 11, B.P.O. Does No. 112, DAV Auxiliary No. 9, Eagles Auxiliary No. 592, Knights of Columbus Fourth Degree Assembly No. 608, VFW Auxiliary No. 1346, Tehama Shrine Masons Legion of Honor, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 9, and Hastings Fire and Rescue.

Norris explained the POW/MIA table, sharing the meaning behind each item included in the arrangement to honor service members who didn’t return home.

Chris Long, Veteran Services Officer for Adams County, said the new directed health measures put in place on Wednesday required some last-minute adjustments to the event.

Although it was challenging to make arrangements for the service during the pandemic, he said, it was important to honor veterans for the holiday, especially after being forced to cancel the ceremony for Memorial Day.

“I thought, ‘We need to do this,’ ” he said. “I think it went great.”

Veterans Day in 2020: quiet parades, somber virtual events
  • Updated

OKLAHOMA CITY — Celebrations marking Veterans Day gave way to somber virtual gatherings Wednesday, with many of the nation’s veterans homes barring visitors to protect their residents from the surging coronavirus that has killed thousands of former members of the U.S. military.

Cemeteries decorated with American flags were silent as well, as many of the traditional ceremonies were canceled. With infections raging again nationwide, several veterans homes are fighting new outbreaks.

In New York City, a quiet parade of military vehicles, with no spectators, rolled through Manhattan to maintain the 101-year tradition of veterans marching on Fifth Avenue. President Donald Trump took part in an observance at Arlington National Cemetery, while President-elect Joe Biden placed a wreath at the Korean War Memorial in Philadelphia.

More than 4,200 veterans have died from COVID-19 at hospitals and homes run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and nearly 85,000 have been infected, according to the department.

That death toll does not include an untold number who have died in private or state-run veterans facilities, including the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in Massachusetts, which had nearly 80 deaths earlier this year. Two former administrators were charged with criminal offenses after an investigation found that “utterly baffling” decisions caused the disease to run rampant there.

American veterans are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 because of their age and underlying health conditions, some of which can be traced to exposure to the Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange and smoke from burning oilfields in the Persian Gulf.

All told, the coronavirus has taken almost a quarter-million lives in the U.S., or about four times the number of American military deaths in Vietnam.

The Holyoke Soldiers’ Home has barred all visitors for two weeks after a staff member tested positive in late October. It honored the veterans throughout the day with gifts, treats, music and a virtual ceremony.

Officials also remembered those who died at the home in western Massachusetts. “Those veterans that we lost will not be forgotten, and we’ll be sure to use their memory that a tragedy like that won’t happen again,” said state Rep. Aaron Vega.

In Idaho, 33 residents of the state veterans home in Boise have tested positive, including nine on Tuesday, said home administrator Rick Holloway. Six have died, and four are hospitalized.

On Veterans Day, the home is normally full of family members, community groups and officials who gather to thank the former members of the military for their service. This year, the halls were empty, and the home planned to serve residents a special prime rib dinner in their rooms.

“It’s a different environment right now — very, very quiet, and the care we’re providing is more one-on-one activities,” Holloway said.

Marv Hagedorn, administrator of the Idaho Division of Veteran Services, watched volunteers at the state’s veterans cemetery put flags on graves earlier this week.

“It was beautiful, even knowing that we’re not going to be there. I think for veterans this is going to be a hard day,” he said.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little pleaded with residents to wear masks and socially distance in honor of those who served in the armed forces. “They have endured loss of friends, loss of limbs and loss of mental and emotional security to protect us. Now our veterans need us,” he said in a statement.

At the annual Veterans Day gathering at the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery, many participants wore masks and kept their distance from others.

“Veterans Day looks a lot different this year than it has in the past,” said Andy Patterson, commander of the Disabled American Veterans of New Hampshire.

Ninety-eight veterans have died from COVID-19 in Missouri’s seven veterans homes since Sept. 1, and Gov. Mike Parson ordered an independent review after several deaths in October.

In Oklahoma, more than 300 cases of coronavirus have been reported at six of the state’s seven veterans homes and 72 residents have died from COVID-19. Officials believe the two worst outbreaks were caused by an employee who was infected but had no symptoms.

Rusty Elkins said his 84-year-old father Glenn Elkins, who joined the Navy during the Korean War and spent most of his career as a public school teacher and administrator, was among those who died from COVID-19 after contracting it at the veterans home in Norman, Oklahoma.

He said he believes a shortage of staffers and a rotating group of doctors led to a lack of leadership at the facility that worsened the problem. His father was transferred to a hospital in Oklahoma City, but his condition deteriorated as he waited for a bed.

“I wanted him to have a chance, but by then it was too late,” Elkins said. “I didn’t get him here quick enough.”

Hebron reels in CDBG funding for downtown revitalization
  • Updated

HEBRON — Four hundred thousand dollars in federal funds are being steered toward the city of Hebron to assist with revitalization projects in the downtown area.

In a news release Tuesday, the Nebraska Department of Economic Development announced Hebron will be one of five communities across the state to share in a total of $2.195 million in Community Development Block Grant funding earmarked for downtown revitalization activities.

The Hebron award includes $400,000 in project funding, plus $35,000 in general administration funds and $10,000 in construction management funds, for a total of $445,000.

The money is to be used to address blight conditions throughout the downtown area, assisting with commercial rehabilitation of privately owned properties.

Projects could include façade improvements, repairs needed to correct code violations, and infrastructure improvements needed for compliance with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.

Community Development Block Grant dollars are released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to the states for economic development and community development activities in municipalities with populations smaller than 50,000 and counties with populations of less than 200,000.

Each state then awards the block grant money to communities based on a competitive application process. In Nebraska, the state Department of Economic Development administers the CDBG program.

The city of Hebron celebrated the impending CDGB announcement prospectively on Nov. 6 with a congratulatory post on social media.

“On behalf of the City and the Downtown Revitalization Committee we would like to personally thank each of you that participated in the community survey, attended the community/business meetings and provided letters of support,” the post reads. “We are also very appreciative to all the businesses that took the time to complete the pre-application.

“In a world of uncertainty, we are certain of one thing: Hebron is a town that knows how to pull together and make things happen!”

The Hebron City Council designated the downtown area as blighted and substandard in October 2019. The downtown redevelopment zone is called Redevelopment Area 2.

The CDBG dollars are to be matched by contributions of at least $100,000 from local business owners, with additional support from the Hebron Community Foundation and/or local economic development funds as allowed under Nebraska law with LB840.

Projects that are part of the downtown revitalization effort are to result in no displacements.

Fourteen local residents and business owners turned out for a public hearing on the grant application Aug. 27. Questions were raised, but no one testified against the proposed application at that hearing.

At that point, 12 letters of support for the proposal had been received by the city.

Other cities receiving funding under this round of CDBG awards are Crete ($445,000), Plainview ($435,000), Ravenna ($435,000) and Stanton ($435,000), all for downtown revitalization. A total of nine communities applied.

According to the Department of Economic Development, all nine types of CDBG funding opportunities in Nebraska are designed to support one or more “core objectives”: Benefiting low- to moderate-income individuals, preventing or eliminating slum and blight conditions, or solving “catastrophic health and safety threats.”

In Tuesday’s news release, NDED said each of the communities receiving downtown revitalization funding in this round “demonstrated a solid approach to impactful community development, demonstrating collaboration and support by local businesses and residents.”

“Our department is proud to administer CDBG funding on behalf of the state of Nebraska to help our communities achieve their goals for economic development and quality of life,” said Anthony L. Goins, NDED director.